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Research scientist Amaia Igartua at SINTEF Ocean pictured here working with some of the plastic materials investigated as part of the research project.
Research scientist Amaia Igartua at SINTEF Ocean pictured here working with some of the plastic materials investigated as part of the research project.

Researchers surprised by the level of toxicity they found in rubber gloves

Researchers have examined how toxic 50 common plastic products, such as plastic bags and children's toys, can be for small animals in the ocean.

 The plastic with which we surround ourselves contains a range of chemical additives that can leach out into water systems in the natural environment. 

This can happen both before and during the plastic degradation process. Even if it takes a long time for products to break down into microplastic particles, the chemicals start to leach from the plastic as soon as it enters the water.

Researchers have been trying to find out more about whether this phenomenon is harmful to animals, and perhaps also to humans.

Lisbet Sørensen is a research scientist at SINTEF.
Lisbet Sørensen is a research scientist at SINTEF.

“In this project, we’ve been focusing on the impacts on marine organisms of chemical additives in plastics,” Lisbet Sørensen says.

She is a research scientist at SINTEF Ocean. 

“To do this, we’ve been studying a variety of marine species. During the first screening exercise, we examined two groups of microorganisms – bacteria and microalgae, also known as phytoplankton. These species are easy to work with and provide us with quick answers that we can use to help us map out the future direction of our research,” she says.

Next, they analysed the eggs and larvae of cod, since fish, like humans, are most susceptible to the impacts of pollution in the early stages of life. 

Examined 50 different everyday products

“It's of course impossible to test every single plastic product available, so we made a qualified selection of 50 items that we use in our everyday lives,” Sørensen says.

Among the 50 products were plastic bags, disposable cups, rubber gloves, care tyre granules, a variety of children’s toys, and balloons. And that is just to name a few.

“The initial idea was simply to select classic plastic products, but I fell for the temptation to include some items made of rubber. And this proved to be a wise decision,” she says.

What happens when plastic breaks down?

An international team of researchers, including biologists and chemists, has participated in the project called MicroLEACH (Microplastics – Long-term Effects of plastics and Additive Chemicals on marine organisms).

Analytical lab work provided the team with a broad overview of the types and amounts of chemicals found in the various products.

“We were very surprised at the number of different chemicals we identified in these products. Only 30 per cent of the chemical compounds identified were found in two or more products. There were also a large number of chemicals that we couldn’t identify with certainty because they were not listed in established substance indexes. This told us how little we know about the composition of many of the everyday products that we have around us all the time,” Sørensen says.

The aim of the project is to investigate how toxic these chemicals are to living organisms once the plastic products find their way into the marine environment.

Chemicals come before microplastics

When plastics are broken down, either physically into fragments or chemically due to environmental factors, they eventually end up as microplastic particles. However, long before this process has been completed, chemical additives in the plastics may leach out into the natural environment.

“It was this issue that we wanted to address in the project. How toxic are the chemical additives we find in standard plastic products available on the Norwegian market, and how much of a problem are they compared with the microplastics generated by the products themselves?” Andy Booth says.

Booth is a chief research scientist at SINTEF. He has been working with marine pollution for many years and has also conducted research into what happens to nanoparticles that enter the marine environment.

The research team behind the project. From left: Stefania Piarulli, Amaia Igartua, Andy Booth, and Lisbet Sørensen.
The research team behind the project. From left: Stefania Piarulli, Amaia Igartua, Andy Booth, and Lisbet Sørensen.

Natural rubber is far from harmless

The research team looked into the effect of chemicals that leach from microplastics and rubber particles into the marine environment. 

“What we found is that products that either consist of, or contain, high levels of rubber, had the worst impact on the microorganisms that we investigated in our experiment. This was a little surprising – not least because untreated rubber is seen as a natural product. We found, however, that it was among the substances that was most toxic to the microorganisms we were studying,” Booth says.

Worst of all were the chemicals that leached from rubber gloves.

“It’s well worth noting that chemicals added to natural rubber and used in dishwashing gloves proved to be the most toxic to the microorganisms. These are substances that we found in four of the 50 products that we tested – dishwashing gloves, car tyres, rubber balloons, and disposable gloves,” he says.

Products that contained a lot of rubber had the worst impact on microorganisms, according to Andy Booth.
Products that contained a lot of rubber had the worst impact on microorganisms, according to Andy Booth.

Deformed fish larvae

In the project, cod embryos and recently hatched larvae were exposed to both microplastic particles and the chemicals identified in the plastics. The team also exposed both eggs and larvae to a combination of the two, because, in the real world, they cannot be distinguished from each other. 

The results have been published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials

Initially, the researchers characterised and extracted the toxic chemicals from the various plastics and investigated their effects on cod larvae.

“What we observed was that some chemicals acted directly to prevent the eggs from hatching, while others exerted major physical effects on the larvae. We discovered that the larvae developed vertebral deformities that reminded us of what we call scoliosis,” says Stefania Piarulli, a biologist and research scientist at SINTEF.

Which is worse – microplastic or the chemicals?

But what about the microplastic particles? Are they harmful in their physical state, or is it the combination of their size and the chemicals that leach out of them that make them so toxic?

In order to investigate this, the researchers compared the effects of the particles and chemicals separately, and were a little surprised to find that the chemicals were essential to producing the toxic effect.

“The particular feature of this experiment is that we developed an entirely new method of ‘cleaning’ the microplastic of all traces of chemicals. This is the only way of being able to say anything for certain about the effect of the microplastic particles,” Piarulli explains. 

In other words, the team identified no toxic effects from the physical particles if they did not contain chemicals.

Elastic plastics are in a class of their own

The research team found that not all types of plastic are toxic. It is the combination of different plastic products that determine the level of toxicity, and elastic plastic products proved to be among the worst.

“This means that we now know that it’s possible to reduce toxicity in a number of products simply by selecting alternative polymer combinations during manufacture,” Andy Booth says.

Polymers are chain-shaped molecules and the main component in plastic products. 

What about mammals and humans?

Biologist and researcher Stefania Piarulli is the project team member who has been responsible for experiments involving marine organisms.

“Is there any reason to believe that food animals, such as wild and farmed fish, chicken, pork or beef, contain many of these chemicals?”

“Both humans and other animals are continuously being exposed to both macro- and microplastics and the chemical additives they contain. It's therefore natural to assume that we are also exposed to plastic-related chemical additives via the food we eat. But we will need more research to find out how much of these chemicals are derived from the meat products, and how much from the packaging,” Piarulli says, adding:

“My view is that we are exposed to far more chemicals in connection with food processing and cooking than the plastic packaging. We are also exposed to plastic-related chemical additives in many other ways.”

Research team member Lisbet Sørensen adds that fortunately, plastic products used in connection with the storage and consumption of food are the least problematic. 

We should reduce our use of plastics

All so-called ‘food contact materials’ are governed by a strict set of regulations that stipulate limits on the content of both identified and non-identified chemical additives.

“What is more worrying is that other plastic products that we use every day, including some of those designed for children, did not perform as well as food contact materials in our experiments. However, we must also emphasise that in this project, we have not investigated any effects that are directly applicable to humans,” Sørensen says.

“As researchers, what advice do you have to offer consumers when it comes to plastics and food?”

“Never in history have we been exposed to more pollution than we are today. This is why we should always be aiming to reduce our use of plastics. We know that plastics have adverse effects, and we also know that there are most probably effects that we have yet to find out about, including direct impacts on terrestrial, fresh- and seawater environments,” Stephania Piarulli says.

The researcher believes that plastic is an incredibly useful invention that is essential to our way of life in many contexts, such as in medicine and certain forms of packaging. 

“But plastics are also used in many settings where they are entirely unnecessary, such as in the textile sector and in situations of product overpackaging. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to avoid the use of plastics where possible, and to exert our influence as consumers when we buy new products,” she says.

Reference:

Sørensen et al. Organic chemicals associated with rubber are more toxic to marine algae and bacteria than those of thermoplasticsJournal of Hazardous Materials, 2023. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2023.131810

About the research

The research described in this article has been conducted as part of the project MicroLEACH (Microplastics – Long-term Effects of plastics and Additive CHemicals on marine organisms). NTNU has also contributed to the project.

  • Project duration: 2019–2024
  • The results demonstrate that both plastics and rubber leach a number of substances that are toxic to small, naturally-occurring, organisms. In this study, experiments were conducted using marine microorganisms such as bacteria and algae, as well as cod embryos and larvae. While some chemicals caused the death of these organisms, others resulted in physical effects such as vertebral deformities (cod larvae).
  • Project partners: The Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA/Project Manager Tânia Gomes), SINTEF Ocean, Vrije Universitet Amsterdam (Netherlands), the University of Plymouth (UK), the University of Queensland (Australia) and the University of Barcelona (Spain) . 
  • Funding: The Research Council of Norway



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